A few weeks ago, the video game cartoonists over at Penny Arcade realized that they'd gone too long without talking about rape and decided to start talking about rape again. Or they just had an innocent off-the-cuff moment and accidentally brought up rape again, and in predictable Internet fashion, it's been blown out of proportion with a good old-fashioned clusterfuck. The thing that bothers me isn't about what's true, false, right, or wrong -- it's that this entire conversation about offensive stuff has completely stalled out, because people have forgotten that ...
#5. You Can't Talk Someone Out of Being Offended
Also known as "Calm down, it's just a joke."
When I accidentally piss someone off, my knee-jerk reaction is to try to reason that pissed-offedness into not existing. And I'm not alone: The Penny Arcade guys did it with mockery, and one of your friends will do it tonight after they forget that "You Jewed me" hasn't been an OK thing to say for like 50 years, or ever. The problem is that this strategy doesn't make any more sense than trying to talk someone out of diarrhea.
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"Before your colon makes a decision, I have a PowerPoint presentation I'd like it to take into consideration."
Scientists call the feeling of being offended a narcissistic injury, and it's as uncontrollable as crying after you've had diarrhea in front of your first and last date with the woman you've secretly loved your whole life.
Trying to reason your way out of having pissed someone off is a natural urge, because it's rooted in trying to fix a mistake. No sane person wants to feel like they're the source of someone else's pain, so it's a means of shifting the blame off of ourselves. "I can't believe you turned my innocent joke into something dark and evil." We didn't mean anything cruel, so no one should be upset -- only there is no situation in the world where what we mean to do is more important than what we did. If the world really functioned like that, we all would've aced every test in high school (we meant to give the right answers, right?). Good intentions mean exactly dick if you're too incompetent to do anything with them. For example, I hear this was supposed to be a movie:
Oh, they sucker-punched ticket buyers! I get it now.
Basically, if you fart in your roommate's mac and cheese, all the explanation in the world ("You surprised me! It's a survival instinct!") isn't going to make their dinner taste any less like butt. Someone's dinner is ruined, and you're going to have to address it.
But just in case you're the one with the bowl full of stinky pasta, you'll need to remember that ...
#4. You Can't Force Someone to Be Offended (And You Shouldn't Try)
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When we talk about whether a comic is offensive, we're not actually talking about the comic -- we're talking about the people who were offended by it. They're the ones who matter in this discussion. Without their offense, there is no conversation, which is likely how The Family Circus slipped under the radar for so long. Except for that one strip where they adorably endorsed human trafficking and military torture.
If I could get all personal and real for a second (and I can!), I'd admit that the "dickwolves" comic doesn't offend me. But I'm not going to explain why, because that very fact means that my emotional reaction to the comic doesn't matter. When I first realized that, it irritated me, because I like to think I matter a lot (there's a reason I chose gold instead of brass for the statue of me I erected in my living room). But once I saw the whole picture, I realized that it's pretty liberating.
So I put on my sundress and went for a frolic.
We're not the hive-mind buggers from Ender's Game -- our brains exist independent of each other, and we are allowed to be pissed off by something without anyone else's approval. That's kinda great, right? No one can tell us what to feel. Well, maybe Adele, but it has to be raining first, her haunting vocals forever tainting my memories with the mental whiff of my poop date. Sorry, I drifted for a second. What was I talking about?
Oh, yeah -- we're never going to all agree about what's offensive, because "offensive" isn't a measurable trait. No matter how much we pore over the psychology of humor or the syntactic structure of jokes, we'll never find a shortcut because there is no dowsing rod that we can plunge into a joke to find out if it's funny or unfunny or benign or offensive. All we can do is constantly pay attention to how other people around us are reacting and use that information to not be an asshole.
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This face means you fucked up.
Sure, it's a lot of work, but in exchange you get to have relationships with other humans that aren't based on yelling and crying. Which ... I mean, that's usually pretty OK, because some of them know how to fix my computer.
#3. It's Pretty Rude to Get Offended for Someone Else
First of all, let me be absolutely clear that it's good to stand up for other people, even when it's just casual stuff. If your friend keeps shouting "Fag!" whenever you get on Xbox Live together, feel free to punch him in the nuts or just unplug his wireless router and let the apoplectic gamer-rage eat precious years off the end of his life. That's justice, right there.
What's not OK is using everything you see as an example to explain why people who aren't you might get offended by stuff, because again, you're not talking about the people who were offended (the only ones who matter, remember); you're talking about a hypothetical group that exists only in your imagination. You're making it all about you, and you may not have the necessary perspective. In short, you're talking out of your ass to create controversy. You've effectively become every cable news program.
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"Saving that cat's life just normalizes the stereotype of helpless kittens, you asshole."
I used to work in a high school, and I attended a lot of events, because high schools love events the way celebrities love using rehab as a form of apology. At one of these events (I don't remember what it was -- a wet T-shirt contest? I dunno; I was drunk), I was seated in front of two young women who were loudly talking about how racist this particular event was, until an elderly black woman seated behind them leaned forward and, with that infinite dignity and majesty that some old people just have, said, "Excuse me, I'm sorry, could you please shut the fuck up?"
Maybe the women were right about the event, but the elderly woman behind them didn't give a shit because she was there to see the kids, not listen to pompous 20-somethings show off the stuff they learned at their Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites meeting.
"Let's end racism by putting our members' race at the forefront!"
Obviously, that doesn't mean that you can't talk about offensive stuff unless you're offended. Cracked has done some great articles on this topic. But we're not grabbing those sexist comic book and video game characters and shoving them in women's faces and telling them to stop enjoying the stuff they like. We're just pointing out terrible things and laughing at them. Because we're fundamentally deranged individuals, and there's no helping us.